Monthly Archives: December 2010

Rasputin and Ricky Nelson: Remembering and Making History in the New Year

Every year during the last few days leading up to the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, the air filled with confetti and merry voices singing “we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne,” numerous lists appear marking the memorable events and departures of the past year.  As with each New Year, the universal hope is that the next year will be better than the past.  In fact, the new year will be much like the one that is ending, and if the law of entropy be true, then all things—even time itself—will continue their slow decay until Father Time has no further offspring.

As is my habit, during the day I pause to note what memorable events occurred on this day in past years, or try to guess which news events of today will be among those included in future lists like History.com’s “This Day in History.”  I am particularly interested in those events that occurred during my brief sixty-six years, or are of interest to me because of their association with certain areas of history.

Today, for example, is the anniversary of Rick Nelson’s death in a plane crash near De Kalb, Texas, in 1985.  Rick Nelson, better known as Ricky Nelson, was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in 1940, the youngest son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.  My generation watched Ricky and his brother Dave grow up on the popular television sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

The television show lasted fifteen seasons, an unbroken record for a TV sitcom.  For many Americans of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the Nelson family became the model of an ideal middle-class American family.  In fact Ozzie, who controlled every creative aspect of the show and wrote many of the scripts, made sure that the show mirrored the real-life Nelson family.

A preacher friend of mine used to refer to what he called “the Ozzie and Harriet syndrome” that allegedly corrupted my generation.  The Nelson family as portrayed on television every week was taken by many as a model of the perfect family.  Interestingly, at least for my preacher friend, was the fact that there never was any mention, or allusion to God or any kind of religious belief.  In fact, Ozzie Nelson was an atheist.  The absence of any reference to the role of religious faith in the life of America’s model family was deliberate.  According to my friend, that instilled in my generation a subconscious conviction that a happy family was possible without God.  

Today I find episodes of Ozzie and Harriet rather cheesy, like most of the sitcoms of that era.  But at the time I was an avid fan.  I regularly watched the program as a teenager, not so much for the story but, rather, because at the end of each episode Ricky Nelson sang a song.  He was the biggest teen idol after Elvis and Pat Boone and still holds the record for the most single recordings sold.

It is interesting how Ricky Nelson became such a sensation.  While on a date at sixteen, his girlfriend “swooned” while they listened to an Elvis song on the radio.  When Ricky told her that he was recording a record (He wasn’t!), she laughed at him.  So he went home, secured a recording studio, and recorded his first single.  “I’m Walkin’.” It was an instant success.  It sold one million copies within one week, an unheard of phenomena at the time.  I have often wondered what the reaction was of the girl who laughed at him. 

I remember as a teenager asking a girl with whom I was totally infatuated if she would go out with me.  She laughed; I was heartbroken.  But with no guitar and no talent, I was forced to get on with my life, not knowing that I would later meet the true love of my life.  And I did not need a guitar, although I did sing for her my rendition of Elvis’ “Teddy Bear.”

Also of note on this New Year’s Eve is news of the death on Wednesday, December 29, of Bobby Farrell, lead singer of the popular 1970s disco group, “Boney M.” The group was based in West Germany, although all four performers were from the Caribbean.  They broke into the charts in 1976 with their recording of “Daddy Cool” and “Sunny.”  Two years later they recorded “Rivers of Babylon,” which sold nearly two million copies in Great Britain.  Today, they are probably remembered most for their recording of the popular Christmas song “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord.”

What makes Bobby Farrell’s death on Wednesday interesting is this little bit of historical trivia:  In 1978, Boney M had a hit with “Rasputin.”   The song was about the mad monk known by that name who played a major role in the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev enjoyed it so much that he invited Boney M to perform before a crowd of 2,700 in Moscow’s Red Square.  They were the first Western pop music group to perform in the Soviet Union.

What is so interesting is that Bobby Farrell died on the ninety-forth anniversary of Rasputin’s assassination on December 29, 1916.  Not only that, but Farrell died after performing in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  He was discovered dead in his hotel room after he failed to answer a wake-up call.  Farrell complained of not feeling well before and after his last performance.

Was Bobby Farrell’s connection with the famous mad monk Rasputin mere coincidence?  I suspect so, but it is one of those things that make history interesting.  Of course most Americans have no idea who Rasputin was, or the significant role he played in the history of the twentieth century.  In fact, I doubt that most Americans have any idea that there was a revolution in Russia in 1917 or can find Russia on a world map (that is, unless they have taken a history course from me).

I must end my New Year’s epistle in order to join the festivities in New York’s Time Square via the wonder of television.

So, happy New Year, and let us see if we can make history during 2011.

For video clips of Ricky Nelson check out http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ricky+nelson&aq=0

For video clips of Boney M check out http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=boney+m+daddy+cool&aq=1

On Rasputin and his role in the Russian Revolution see http://www.alexanderpalace.com/2006rasputin/index.html

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The Real Meaning of Christmas

What is the true meaning of Christmas?  That is a question many, myself included, ponder every year when the holiday rolls around.  It seems that the real reason we celebrate is lost somewhere under all of the consumerism.  For those businesses that will either survive another year or go under depending on the season’s sales, buying the latest gadgets and widgets is what Christmas is all about.  But is it?  I think not.

During my first ten years I lived in Michigan, not far from Bay City where I was born in 1944.  Bay City was once two cities, Bay City and West Bay City.  They straddled the Saginaw River where it empties into Lake Huron.   The two cities merged into one in 1905.  Sometime around 1910 they were connected by a bridge that looked like it had been constructed from a giant Erector Set.  If you crossed the Third Street Bridge, as it was commonly called,  from the West Side to the East Side and immediately turned right on North Water Street, you encountered a large furniture store with big display windows.    

I remember in particular one evening shortly before Christmas during the early 1950’s.  My father took us to Bay City to do some Christmas shopping.  It was very cold and everything was covered in snow.  Downtown was filled with shoppers hurrying about from store to store.  It seemed like there was a Santa Claus on every street corner standing in front of a red kettle, ringing a bell.  The “real” Santa Claus was no doubt very busy at the North Pole.  The many corner Santas were merely his helpers soliciting contributions for the Salvation Army.

At some point during the evening’s shopping, we found ourselves standing in front of that furniture store, staring at a truly amazing display in its big window.  There, seated on a large green chair surrounded by a cornucopia of toys, was a giant mechanical Santa Claus.  While a model train weaved its way among the many toys and between Santa’s feet, the jolly old man rocked back and forth as he told stories about his many Christmas adventures.  From the speakers mounted above the window I heard Santa tell of how he once got stuck in a chimney.  It almost ruined Christmas.  The stories were frequently punctuated by a joyful “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

My attention was riveted on Santa and the stories he was telling, not the many toys skillfully displayed around him.  After all, the model trains, Erector Sets, BB guns (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) and other expensive gifts were for kids from more affluent families.  My siblings and I would have to make do with board games and other more affordable gifts.  I knew, as did most of my friends at school, that Santa’s generosity was directly related to a family’s income.  Some things never change.

Just a couple of blocks down from the furniture store was Wenonah Park.  There, on the most prominent corner of the park, the city had erected a Nativity scene as part of the city’s Christmas tradition.  I doubt there were any protests from the local atheists.  I am sure there were atheists then, as there are now, but that was a time when the majority did not tremble in fear of the lone fanatic.

Upon reflection these many years later, I think the presence of the Nativity scene and Santa Claus in close proximity was a good thing.  I am aware that not everyone agrees with me.   There will always be those who would like to kill off the Santa Claus myth.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge and his Puritan ancestors, they shudder at the thought of children enjoying Christmas.  Children and adults playing Santa Claus at Christmas, like all fantasy, is simply wrong to them.  

The anti-Santa Claus people seem to fear that the Santa myth is somehow a threat to celebrating the birthday of Jesus, as if a jolly old man in a red suit could ever be a threat to the one “by whom and for whom all things were created”.  They seem to live in fear of being incinerated for setting out a saucer of sugar cookies and a cup of hot chocolate for Santa, or merely reading to children that wonderful story, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas

Some of my more serious-minded friends do not approve of newsman Francis Pharcellus’ response to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s plea that he tell her the truth about Santa Claus.  In his editorial response, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Pharcellus pointed the little girl’s attention to the “spirit of Christmas,” a spirit of “love, and generosity, and devotion.”  A world without the magic of Christmas, Pharcellus wrote, would be a “dreary world” indeed:  “There would no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.  We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.  The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

The truth is that the birth of Jesus Christ brought joy to a world that lay “in sin and error pining.”  Human beings no longer need live in fear.  That was the good news of great joy proclaimed by angels to the shepherds in the fields that night.  The promised Messiah had come.  God became man in order that the wrath of a righteous and holy God could be satisfied. That task, impossible for any human being, was accomplished by the greatest act of love ever.  God offered himself as a sacrifice to himself in order to give life back to us, we who willfully shun his love.

I especially love the twelfth chapter of Hebrews (18-24).  It is there that the meaning of Christmas is so clearly revealed:

“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (NIV, 1984).

Of course the birth of Jesus Christ must not be separated from his death on a cross outside walls of Jerusalem some thirty-three years later.  They are not two events, but really one event.  Without Christmas, there would be no Easter.  Without Easter, Christmas would have no meaning.

So, what has the birth of Jesus to do with the Santa Claus myth?  Are children likely to reject Jesus Christ later in life, because at some point early in life they discovered that Santa Claus was a game of pretend?  I think not.  Children learn quickly that there are “pretend” stories and there are “true” stories.  Stories that usually begin with, “Once upon a time,” are not the same as Bible stories.

When I was a child, I thought Santa Claus brought gifts to children at Christmas, because Jesus was God’s gift to us on the first Christmas.  Far from misleading a child into a life of decadent commercialism, a sin as common among evangelical Christians as among non-Christians, Santa Claus can actually be used to introduce children to the “real” meaning of Christmas.

Perhaps at this point, I should quote from C. S. Lewis on the distinction between myth and reality, or how myth can enlighten one’s understanding of the “true Myth.”  But C. S. Lewis is “used” too often by Christians to legitimate what they are proposing.  Quoting Lewis is much like quoting Shakespeare.  It adds a kind of seal of approval, or imprimatur of orthodoxy.  Therefore, I shall make no reference to the patron saint of Narnia.

What is the “real” meaning of Christmas?  In the Christmas classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a very frustrated Charlie Brown asks the question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas all about?”  And Linus answers saying, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs

Merry Christmas to all!

Life Stinks, But Not all of the Time

Writer’s block!  All of us who enjoy writing must deal with it.  In years past I would sit, staring at the typewriter in front of me, paper loaded, and fingers poised for action, but my mind a blank.  In this age of high tech, the only thing that has changed is that the typewriter is now a laptop computer, and the blank sheet of paper is a blank screen with a vertical line flashing like a neon bar sign along some lonely street at night.

I have been struggling over the past week trying to think of something to write about.  Finally it came to me, a subject, that is.  It came in the form of a line from a movie I was watching, because as I was saying, I had writer’s block.

The movie was Life Stinks (1991) starring Mel Brooks as Goddard Bolt, a billionaire trying to survive thirty days as a penniless bum in the slums, and costarring Lesley Ann Warren as Molly, the Cinderella of the slums with whom Goddard Bolt falls in love.  The film was a flop financially, which is not unusual for movies that I like.

In one scene Molly fears that Goddard, lying unconscious in an infirmary for the homeless, may be dying.  Confessing her love for him, she pleads with him not to die and leave her alone.  She reminds him of things they have done together in the past few days, then she speaks my favorite lines in the whole film:  “I know they’re only moments, but that’s all life is, just a bunch of moments.  Most of them are lousy, but once in a while you steal a good one.”

I’ve been thinking about what she said, and I think it is a profound statement. Life does in fact stink, most of the time.  But we do experience joy, real joy, from time to time.  That is the real mystery of life, those unexpected moments when we are, as C. S. Lewis would say, “surprised by joy.”

The major problem with life is that it is mostly boring.  Madeline L’Engle put it well, when she spoke of the “dailiness of everyday life.”  We live from birth under the shadow of death.  We rise each morning to endure yet another day, then go to sleep knowing that in the morning we must rise to face a repetition of the previous day.  And so it continues until one day, our sentence served, we take a bow and exit the stage.

The boredom of what might be called a “normal life” is expressed well in a poem by the award winning poet, David Ignatow, titled “The Jobholder”:

I stand in the rain waiting for my bus

and in the bus I wait for my stop.

I get let off and go to work

where I wait for the day to end

and then go home, waiting for the bus,

of course, and my stop.

And at home I read and wait

for my hour to go to bed

and I wait for the day I can retire

and wait for my turn to die.

[“The Jobholder” by David Ignatow from At My Ease:  Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties. Copywright:BOA Editions, Ltd. 1998.]

The truth is that we are sojourners in a foreign land.  In the words of Leonard Cohen, we are “just passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue. . . .”  All too often the happy times are rare and far between.

From the dawn of human history our ancestors time after time paused during their struggle for survival to look up at the night sky and ask, “Why?” “What for?” As with us, they instinctively knew that there must be some purpose, some reason for our existence.  It couldn’t possibly be some sort of cosmic accident.  Hence, the eternal struggle for meaning mirrored in the stick figures painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France, all the way down to the painful cries of our own postmodern age.

The French song, “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” translated into English by the poet-songwriter Rod McKuen, has a great line that goes:  “In the eyes of time we are just heaps of dust along the highway. . . .”  The French philosopher Voltaire put it somewhat differently.  He said we are only worms crawling around on a dung heap.

It’s easy to understand why human beings tend to have a rather gloomy view of their place in the scheme of things.  Consider the universe.   Our finite minds must think of it as an entity, that is, something with borders, something finite like ourselves.  But what we are able to discern about the universe reveals it as an endless something (the word “space” is too limiting), punctuated by glittering lights that represent planets, stars, solar systems, etc.

In the vastness of the universe our little planet earth is like an insignificant grain of sand on a beach.  We speak of stars so many light years away that we cannot verify their existence.  By the time a star’s light reaches earth, it may well have ceased to exist long before.  We do not pause to consider that from some other vantage point in the universe, our sun is that star millions of light years away.  Likewise, when we consider that on the earth a single human being is but a grain of sand, that existential question, “Who am I?” takes on a terrifying urgency.

It seems that everything we know tells us that our existence is meaningless, or if it has any meaning, we must create it.  Something, or someone, deep inside each of us tells us that conclusion is not true.  We instinctively cry out against the thought of meaninglessness.   I like the way the singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond, expresses that emotion in his song “I Am . . . I Said”:

But I got an emptiness deep inside

And I’ve tried, but it won’t let me go

And I’m not a man who likes to swear

But I never cared for the sound of being alone

“I am,” I said

To no one there

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried

“I am,” said I

And I am lost, and I can’t even say why

Leavin’ me lonely still

[Copyright: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

I read an article recently about an experiment that has been repeated many times over the ages.  It seems that if a person is blindfolded, that person cannot walk in a straight line.  He or she will walk around in circles.  Even when not blindfolded, if the sky is cloudy or  visibility is low, a human being will walk in circles.  There is no proven explanation for the phenomena.  Still, it is true.  Without a focal point, a point of reference, we are doomed to wander around in circles.

So what does this mystery of why human beings cannot walk in a straight line when they have no reference point ahead of them have to do with the subject of this essay?

Imagine that you awaken surrounded by total darkness.  You might assume that you are in a dark room.  But where is the exit?  How do you find the exit, if you do not know in which direction to search?  How big is the room?  Ever more troubling questions arise.  Perhaps paralyzed with fear, you merely sit down and curse the darkness.  Maybe you begin to grope about in the darkness hoping to find an exit, not knowing, but perhaps suspecting, that you are wandering around in circles.

Then you catch a glimpse of something.  It’s a mere dot, or sliver, of light.  Perhaps it is coming from a keyhole, or the crack of a door?  You must make a decision.  Will you begin to walk towards the glimmer of light, keeping focused on it as you walk?  Or, will you deny that the light is really there?  Perhaps it is like a mirage in a desert?  Maybe you think that you cannot trust your own senses.  For whatever reason you may decide to turn away from the light, to move in the opposite direction, still searching for the exit, still wandering around in circles in the darkness.  Whatever you choose to do, you know that you must choose.

I believe that the answer to the human predicament, to the question of meaning or lack of meaning is similar to that illustration.  We are troubled with anxiety, what the Germans call Angst.  We feel alone in a cold, dark universe.  With the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, we ask, “Whence . . . . What . . . . Whither?” But unlike Gauguin, we are not answered by silence.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God speaks to the ancient Hebrews, and to every human being, saying “. . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life. . . ” (30:19).   In the midst of the darkness that is despair, there is a light, and each one of us must choose whether or not to focus on the light.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light” (John 14:6).  When Jesus asked his disciples if they would turn away like others who had followed him, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life . . . .” (John 6:68).  Like Peter and the other disciples, everyone must choose whether or not to follow the light that gives life.

So, what do I conclude?  Life does stink, but not all of the time.  The path of life, down which we must walk as pilgrims in a foreign land, traverses both mountains and valleys.  The important thing is that we keep our eyes focused on the light ahead, and not be forever stuck in the “Slough of Despond.”

[To hear Garrison Keillor read “The Jobholder,”  go to http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/09/04.  To listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAzKhhzZU0I.  To listen to  “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” go to http://www.rodmckuen.com/music/rose.  To listen to “I Am . . . I Said” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht0zsE9GPrs&playnext=1&list=PL05B265E4D3B36EC1&index=9.]